Cults: Faith Gone Awry


September 13. 2019

Cults arise when people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers, and lose contact with genuine faith. They thrive on what can be called a kind of cultural fatigue and profound ignorance. Historically, for example, when Moses went up into biblical Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites became restless and fearful in his absence. Turning away from God, they directed their devotion to worshiping the Golden Calf. It was immediate, provided simple answers, and required no thinking.

There are of course more contemporary examples, where people become fearful, want immediate and simple answers to life’s big issues and problems. They stop thinking. Their critical faculties decline and they surrender to the simple but phony propaganda of cultic leaders. And they are usually supported by far-right movements with strong racial supremacy. Sometimes the beginning of these movements tends to be relatively quiet and gradual; but they remain sinister red flags nonetheless.

Quite often the line between conventional religion and a cult is not so clearly defined. Cults are exclusive, highly secretive, and authoritarian. Some religions of course are that way as well. Some cults even proclaim Christianity, but bear no resemblance to anything truly and authentically Christian. There are as well political cults, which attract and control because they act like captivating religions, whose only demands are obedience and unquestioned loyalty.

A typical cult has a somewhat theatrical and unaccountable leader, who persuades by coercion and exploits the cult’s members economically, sexually, or in some other way. Cult leaders often get people to react to what they are doing by saying something they don’t really or fully believe. Cultic leaders shun and ostracize members who don’t accept the cult’s exclusive claims to truth. When it comes to truth, cult leaders gradually turn fantasy and fiction into accepted truths by continually repeating false statements in rhetoric, propaganda, and the media.

The ninety-three years old American psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton, known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence, delineates three characteristics, which are the most common features of destructive cults:

(1) A living leader, who has no meaningful accountability and becomes the single most defining element of the group and its source of power and authority.

(2) A process of indoctrination, persuasion or thought reform, commonly called “brainwashing.” In this process, members of the group often do things that are not in their own best interest, but in the best interest of the group and its leader.

(3) Economic, sexual, social, and political exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The warning signs of cultic development are clear:

• It advocates authoritarianism without meaningful accountability. Leaders, if not downright evil are self-centered, mediocre, crass, and juvenile.

• No tolerance for questions or critical inquiry. Dissent and criticism are not permitted. Those who dissent are marginalized, excluded from decision-making, and labeled “troublemakers” or “dangerous,” or even demonic.

• No meaningful financial disclosure for the leader such as an independently audited financial statement.

• The leader promotes exaggerated and misguided fear about the outside world, such as impending catastrophes, evil conspiracies, and persecutions.

• The group leader is always right. The leader becomes the exclusive way of knowing and passing on the “truth.”

• History and the past become malleable constructs that the leader can adjust to meet the needs and agenda of the cult. Genuine facts become fake news. Actual fake news becomes the new accepted truth.

• Members of the cult believe their leader was sent by God to change the world; and all must therefore be obedient and loyal to the leader.

We all need to be alert to cultic leaders and groups. They are unhealthy and pernicious. We need to have the courage to speak out. They are people who thrive on fear and fear of social change; and they take advantage of people by controlling information and promoting fear. In the process, they support a very unhealthy kind of religion.

Healthy religion builds bridges between people. It strengthens a basic sense of trust and inter-personal relatedness to people and promotes personal responsibility. It encourages intellectual honesty and does not run away from questions or doubts. It does not oversimplify the human situation or its sometimes tangled complexity. And yes: it emphasizes love and growth not fear.

Take care,

Jack

Human Nature and Human Sexuality – Some Contemporary Reflections


September 6, 2019

In determining contemporary moral values and behavior, a realistic understanding of human life requires an historically conscious worldview, because reality is dynamic, evolving, and changing.

Human understanding develops over time. We certainly see this when it comes to medical science and procedures, but not everyone makes an application to moral values. As our human understanding develops, so too our human concepts, theories, and courses of action can change. It is not a matter of relativism but of perspective. There is a human thread that links faith and moral values from generation to generation. People in every age reflect, evaluate, and interpret that tradition in therms of their contemporary culture and understanding.

When people derive moral obligations from “nature,” they are actually deriving them from our human interpretation of “nature.” The challenge with “natural law,” “human nature,” and human sexuality is that the understanding of human sexuality – including biological, emotional, psychological, relational, and spiritual dimensions — has developed and continues to develop.

Today’s understanding of “natural law” involves a fundamental shift from looking at a static “human nature” to considering the dynamic “human person.” The old “traditional” biological and strictly physicalist understanding of traditional natural law and human “nature” must be transformed into a contemporary personalist, relational understanding. The former defines the morality of acts based on the physical, biological structure of those acts. The latter defines the morality of acts based on the meaning of those acts for persons and relationships. Marital sexuality, for example, is about much more than simply linking genitalia to produce progeny.

Now some specific observations about questions people have asked me:

(1) What did the historical Jesus say about sex? Well a strong case can be made that Jesus did not directly discuss sexual activity at all. The biblical record is totally silent about his attitudes towards the sexually-related religious controversies of the present day: equal rights for homosexuals, same-sex marriage, transgender, masturbation, pre-marital sex, etc. Jesus did stress the fundamental moral principle of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. That really covers ALL human actions.

(2) What about cohabitation and premarital intercourse? Cohabitation describes the situation of a man and a woman who live together like husband and wife and enjoy intimate sexual relations. It could be a couple living together prior to their marriage or a couple living together with no real intention of getting married. A sharp increase in cohabitation is one of the most fundamental social changes in Western countries today. It is often assumed to be a new phenomenon; but actually it isn’t. Among the lower classes in medieval Europe, men and women cohabited informally, disregarding Christian ceremonies. Throughout the Middle Ages, in general, peasant marriages were not common, as there was little need for a formal exchange of property among the poor. For the upper class people, marriage was more common but it was not based on love. Most marriages were political and economic arrangements. Husbands and wives were generally strangers until they first met. If love was involved at all, it came after the couple had been married. Even if love did not develop through marriage, the couple generally developed a friendship of some sort. (And men turned to their mistresses for regular sexual pleasure and intimacy.) Particularly noteworthy is that medieval cohabitation, with an active sex life, was a phenomenon often practiced by the “celibate” clergy.

Before 1564, Catholics needed no wedding ceremony to be married. Before 1754, the citizens of England and its empire needed no official wedding ceremony to be married. People lived together. It didn’t always happen; but if there was some kind of public wedding, it often didn’t happen until the wife was pregnant.

I align myself with those contemporary moral theologians who stress that cohabiting couples – those who plan to “get married” as well as those who don’t – should be helped and encouraged to live together in a stable environment, and continue the process of establishing their relationship as one of love, justice, equality, intimacy, and mutual respect and fulfillment. The moral implications of sexual intercourse, sexual pleasure, and desired procreation are best set in the context of a mature interpersonal relationship and not merely in the context of sexual acts.

(3) What about same-sex activity and relationships? Historical consciousness is particularly important here. In the light of contemporary biblical scholarship, it is impossible to agree that the texts so often used to assert the immorality of homosexual acts are unambiguous and provide solid foundations for condemning same sex behavior. The context in which both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament condemn homosexual acts is shaped by the socio-historical conditions of the times in which they were written. Probably the most influential Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) text leading to the condemnation of homosexual acts is the interpretation given to the biblical story of Sodom in the Book of Genesis. Scholars agree that contextual exegesis shows that the homosexual interpretation of the Sodom story is not accurate and that the sin in both the Hebrew text and its literary context is the sin of inhospitality. Traditionally the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans has been seen as the New Testament’s clearest condemnation of same-sex relations—both male and female. Recent scholarship, however, suggests a different interpretation. Paul, the religious Jew, is looking at life in the capital of Greco-Roman culture. Homosexuality itself is not the focus of his condemnation. Rather, Paul’s criticism falls upon paganism’s refusal to acknowledge the true God. Paul, in fact, probably did not understand a homosexual orientation; and biblical scholars today suggest that he struggled personally, his “thorn in the flesh,” with his own same-sex desires. (I suspect many churchmen today, especially in my RCC tradition, struggle with their own same-sex desires. They are often privately gay and publicly homophobic.)

I resonate with contemporary moral theologians who state very simply that homosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a homosexual orientation, just as heterosexual sexual acts are “natural” for people with a heterosexual orientation. Sexual acts are moral when they are natural, reasonable, and expressed in a truly human, just, and loving manner. In today’s churches we need to sit down face-to-face and dialogue about this.

(4) So change is a fact of life? Christian thinkers in the past, including greatly respected theologians, did not know the full reality of the human person as it unfolded over the centuries. Nor did they know the full reality of human biology and sexuality either physiologically or psychologically. Today we understand “nature” as something that has been interpreted in a certain way. Put more directly, “nature” is a socially constructed category. Human knowing is not simply a matter of seeing and hearing and accepting. It is also perceiving, interpreting, and judging.

To some extend we are all involved in what I call a process of moral conversion: progressively understanding the present situation, exposing and eradicating our individual and societal biases, constantly evaluating our scales of preferred values, paying attention to criticism, and listening to others.

(5) What then are the basic values in sexual morality? I see at least seven sexuality values (drawn from Anthony Kosnik’s book Human Sexuality) that are conducive to the healthy growth of the human person:

1. Self-liberating

Sexuality should be a source and means of personal growth toward maturity and self- assurance and not become self-enslaving.

2. Other-enriching

Human sexuality gives expression to a generous interest and concern for the well- being of the other. It should therefore be: sensitive, considerate, thoughtful, compassionate, understanding, and supportive.

3. Honest

Human sexuality expresses openly and candidly and as truthfully as possible the depth of the relationship that exists between people. It avoids pretense, evasion, and deception in every form as a betrayal of the mutual trust that any sexual expression should imply if it is truly creative and integrative.

4. Faithful

Fidelity facilitates the development of stable relationships.

5. Socially responsible

Wholesome human sexuality gives expression not only to individual relationships but in a way also reflects the relationship and responsibility of the individuals to the larger community.

6. Life-serving

Every expression of human sexuality should respect the relationship between the “creative” and “integrative” aspects (i.e. the “procreative” and “unitive”).

7. Joyous

The importance of the erotic element, that is, instinctual desire for pleasure and gratification deserves to be affirmed and encouraged. Human sexual expression is meant to be enjoyed without feelings of guilt or remorse.

So here I conclude what could be called perhaps “Sexual Morality 101.”

Take care,

Jack